"For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong."
-- H.L. Mencken
I LIKE -- really like -- everything about the latest exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum. Everything except the title.
What kind of art would you imagine you'd find in a show packaged under the name "High on Life: Transcending Addiction"? Well, art with a single, possibly preachy message, for one thing, one about the insidious dangers of drugs and booze, with a little something thrown in about the power of the creative spirit to help abusers overcome the vise-like grip of addiction.
It wouldn't mention the fact that the reason people drink and do dope in the first place is because it makes them feel good (that is, until they get hooked and start doing it just to stop feeling bad). Or that some people claim to use illicit drugs with little adverse effects at all, save for the paranoia that comes from wondering when and if the narcs are going to bust down their door. It would be filled with art of dubious merit made by those whose chief claim to fame is that they have found something (e.g. macrame or finger painting) that makes them feel as good as substance abuse once did.
That isn't this show.
"High on Life" is neither a celebration of the clean and sober lifestyle nor a bunch of "Days of Wine and Roses"-style horror stories. To be sure, it makes getting high -- or, as in the case of former Replacements drummer and painter Chris Mars, drunk -- look very bad at times: Hieronymus Boschian nightmares, impaled heads, skulls with holes in them and other metaphors for mental torment are frequent leitmotifs in this show.
At other times, it makes getting trashed look pretty darn enlightening, if not downright fun. Drug-inspired work by such artists as Maura Holden, who calls her use of hallucinogens a "sacrament and a tool of self discovery," and the peyote-popping Huichol Indians of Mexico are just a few examples of art that not only does not sermonize but extols the virtues of mind-altering substances. And while painter Mary Fleener's brightly colored pictures depict, with great humor, some of the downsides of drugs, the former LSD-taker, who describes herself as "living proof that you can 'use' instead of 'abuse,' " says she quit only after acid brought her to such an elevated psychic plane that "I could see people's pain and their true selves, and that is spooky."
Sacrilege? Maybe in the just-say-no playbook, but that's what's so interesting about this show. It acknowledges the fact that people take drugs because they like them. As curator Tom Patterson writes in his introduction to the show, "Human beings are hard-wired to experience ecstasy, epiphany, laughter and bliss." This biological programming to seek pleasure, he argues, is part of who we are. Getting high, whether it be through sex, food, adrenaline, religion, caffeine, tobacco, television, shopping, sugar or the more commonly demonized drugs and alcohol, is not simply a manifestation of weakness, but an essential part of our humanity.
Of course, Patterson also wants you to know that there are ways of achieving the same effect that don't involve rat-infested shooting galleries, vomit, crime, disease, bad skin, mental illness and death. Recovering alcoholic Jack Dilhunt, represented by a darkly abstract ink drawing on a bed sheet, says art has afforded him a deeper "escape experience" than drinking ever did, while Anna Sea calls the satisfaction she now derives from making her autobiographical paintings "addictive."
While avoiding the glamorization of drug use, "High on Life" makes an ultimate irony clear: Most of the work here wouldn't exist without it.
Patterson's criteria for inclusion are broad. Occasionally, a particular work's connection to the theme is murky. Laurie Lipton's double-entendre "Drag," for example, does include a cigarette along with a sexually ambiguous she-male, but the visual pun of the tobacco seems tangential to the central figure. The artist's history of alcoholism and drug addiction in her youth, and her subsequent escape therefrom, give her enough street cred to make the cut.
One surprise here is the number of artists who don't exactly qualify for the "outsider" label. For a museum whose stated mission is championing the art of those with little or no formal training or those whose work falls beyond the bounds of official recognition, there are more "insiders" than is typical. The late artist David Wojnarowicz, for example, collaborated with such notables as Karen Finley, Kiki Smith and Nan Goldin before his death from AIDS 10 years ago, and his sometimes controversial work was critiqued in the mainstream art press.
Not that this is such a bad thing. Outsider art can more than hold its own against work by establishment names. What "High on Life's" big, messy generosity of spirit shows by embracing art by former users, current users and non-users, art by art-school grads and nobodies, by William "Naked Lunch" Burroughs and the Rev. Howard Finster -- and all without pointing fingers -- is that "transcending addiction" may be the big desideratum here, but that battling or even indulging the monkey on your back can sometimes make for artworks of astonishing genius.
HIGH ON LIFE: TRANSCENDING ADDICTION -- Through Sept. 1 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410-244-1900. www.avam.org. Open 10 to 6 Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission $8; children, seniors and students $6; groups of 10 or more $3 per person, children under 4 free.